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INTERVIEW - 2 : The End of the OM System

Based on an interview with Yoshihisa Maitani by Kouichi Akagi, Asahi Camera magazine, March 2002.

- The M-1 was released in 1972. This year is the 30th anniversary of the OM series. Some fans are expecting an anniversary model or a reproduction of the 40mm F2 lens....

OM System 30th anniversary

Maitani: On the contrary, the 30th year becomes the last year.

Akagi: I get a severe shock by that, but how do you feel about the end of the OM System as the originator of it?

M: Thanks to the long support of OM fans, the OM System was able to continue for 30 years, so I am now full of gratefulness while owing many apologies to the fans. The OM development policy is "From the Cosmos to Bacteria", which means you can take a picture with it anytime, anywhere. The system is enormous and it may be impossible for one to get all the units at once, so we progressed without changing the lens mount so that the users can add an item when it becomes necessary. But they are going to be unavailable....


A: People say that the digital cameras pushed the OM System to the end.

M: Olympus has been most eagerly developing digital cameras. It is desirable tendency that digital cameras will take the place of film cameras, actually I think it would be better if we could incorporate digital technology into the OM System. Well, pushed by the digitals .... maybe in some way.

At the beginning, we invested billions of yen in plant and equipment for the OM System. It had a capacity of around sixty to seventy thousand products per month. However, only several hundreds of cameras per month were made these years. The machines were run only for 30 minutes each month, and became idle for the rest of the time. The automatic press machine for making the body top cover was as large as about five meeting rooms. Also, the cloth shutter curtains were woven with a large full-automatic assembling machine. Such large machines are hard to maintain without running them.

A: Now, the outsourcing is the usual way.

M: Yes. In those days, Japan was economically highly growing. Then we could lower the production cost by running the plant at full speed. About sixty to seventy thousand cameras were produced per month. Now I regret that if we had hand-made industry line like the Leitz, we might be able to continue. We give up simply because we cannot maintain the big plant.

- The huge plant is now trashed?

M: Yes. Therefore, we cannot revive the OMs again even if we were asked for, because the OMs need the huge equipment to produce.


Auto focus OM

A: Were you thinking about auto focus at the beginning of the OM System planning?

M: Yes, but there was no technical solution yet. Even ICs were not available in those days.

A: It is also said that the OM System declined because it failed to catch up with auto focus in a good manner.

M: Sure. This was one of the reason, we considered about auto focus from the beginning as I have already mentioned, but we did not have any feasible technology. Therefore, to incorporate auto focus afterwards we had to clear the major issue of changing the system.

Another issue was the patent. We hesitated, and this hesitation arrested the growth of the system. But this is the outsider’s point of view. For the company, paying for patent fee is a major issue. I am still not sure which company is happier, a company that pays billions of yen for license, or a company like Olympus who pays almost nothing.

A: Did the company decide that it was not worth to pay such a huge amount?

M: We did not know how much we had to pay at that moment. Maybe this was the same as Minolta, who had to dispute with Honeywell later. Minolta did not know how much the patent fee was. That was why they concentrated their energies on the development of auto focus system. But interestingly, Olympus is a company who always wants to avoid problems with other companies. Not only because we did not want to pay, we did not want to dispute with Honeywell. Nobody in our company was against discovering our own methods. We would like to use Honeywell's method if they permitted, but the basic stream was that we did not want to fight with them.

A: At first, the OM707 had the Honeywell's auto focus sensor.

M: Yes.

A: I have heard that the OM101 introduced later was provided with a space for an auto focus module under the mirror box.

M: Yes, there was room for it.

A: Then, there was a possibility of becoming an auto focus camera.

M: Potentially, but just at that time the patent issue arose.

A: If the issue was solved, we could have seen more cameras with an auto focus sensor?

M: I think the single-digit OM series could be developed with auto focus system.

A: Mmm ... I think the users were looking forward to them considerably.

M: Yes, I understand that. So I am very sorry for that.



A: When I talked with you before, you told me that the original OM System plan is more extensive and the OM-1 is merely the most popular style of it. What kind of system were you thinking of?

M: The OMs are designed to be a system camera. OM-1, 2, 3 ... are only individual units in the system. Included in my plan is an idea that I should call the "OM-X" or something. This is rather the main concept of the system.

A: The OM-X? What is that?

M: Well, a camera is a tool to take pictures. It needs various functions. I try to take apart the camera into units by each function. Lens, body, film back, and a focal plane or lens shutter. The basic concept of the OM System is to enable the user to gather the components as necessary.

A: In the past there was a block-shaped camera called Rollei SL2000F. Maybe its concept is different from yours, but the user can remove the film magazine.

M: I think the Hasselblad is closer to my ideal rather than the Rollei is.

A: Ah, yes, it is also provided with both a lens shutter and focal plane shutter. So, if such camera is made, that becomes the OM-X.

OM-X prototype (images from Camera Review - Classic Camera Senka magazine)
> OM-X page

M: Right. However, it is easy to take a camera apart by each mono-functions, but every mono-function modules should be flexible to be chosen on user’s demand. It is difficult to realize the flexible joint gimmick. When we started the development, technical difficulties impeded our progress.

A: You spent too much time.

M: The company could not wait that long, so I was requested to release something first. The OM-1 is a combination of the most popular functions.

A: So the OM-X was considered first. Surely, it really is a great plan.

M: I was still young in those days (laughs).

A: What kind of shape is the OM-X?

M: No particular shape. If you want to use it as a medical camera to take pictures inside a person's mouth, you assemble it that way; if you want to use it as a gastrocamera, you will use a long rod-shaped attachment. You build it in a different form for snapshots, shooting still life, etc.

A: What about the basic body?

M: None. Therefore, the idea is completely unique (laughs). I know, you want to say that a component camera needs a body and adapters, and you want to ask "what is the basic body?" Then, I want to say that the base is the entire system.

A: It may become a camera other than a SLR?

M: Surely possible. Although the fundamental form is a SLR to watch a subject image, non-SLR form is possible. Looking back now, I can tell you everything frankly.

A: What happens to the OM-X after the OM-1?

M: Today, its concept is still evolving but has not been carried out yet (laughs). If I proceeded with the OM plan in the days of the Pen series, without doing the Pens, this plan may now have reached a further point.


The children of Maitani

A: I want to ask you finally, which is your favorite lens?

M: I love all of them, because they are my children (laughs).

A: Then, which lens do you carry frequently?

M: 21mm F2, 24mm F2, 28mm F2.

A: All F2s?

M: Yes, F2s. And, skips over the 35mm, the 40mm F2. I persisted in my opinion and broke down my colleague’s oppositions about this lens. Because I myself, for one, wanted to use the lens. We also have F2 telephoto lenses, but I cannot carry them (laughs).

    Zuiko 40mm F2
One of the smallest and lightest of all OM System lenses, with a very useful, slightly wider than normal 40mm focal length that is especially appreciated by press photographers. Minimum focus is an extremely close 30cm. The balance with OM camera bodies is superb.

A: They're quite big.

M: So I carry a 50-250mm F5 zoom instead. Even when I travel abroad, I always bring these five lenses. I have especially set my heart on the F2 series lenses.

A: F2s were available from 21mm to 250mm.

M: Yes, we took the challenge to make something that didn't exist. We were even planning F2 zooms.

A: Really? Was there such a plan?

M: We were studying it. It didn't fruit as a product, though. We were not adhering to F2, but we wanted to make a high performance lens that is the fastest in its class.

A: After the OM System is discontinued some unique lenses are also lost.

M: Lenses like the 24mm shift lens.

A: F2 macro lenses are not available from other manufacturers yet. Is that because they are not confident in their own abilities?

M: Rather than confidence, I think they should have more tenacity.

A: Tenacity?

M: Yes. Now, Japan comes to a standstill. We have to consider everything again from the origin of a high-tech nation to break this deadlock and have the joy and tenacity to make "something necessary and valuable".

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Last updated on 29 December, 2008